Few other establishments impose such an element of secrecy as strip clubs. Set behind greyed-out windows, with maybe a velvet rope for a hint of glamour, its workers are often subject to stereotyping, with either a Hustlers-style empowerment narrative put on them, or one where the strippers are vulnerable and preyed-upon, in need of saving. Inside, however, is another world – a microcosm of society with its own rules and power dynamics.
Having both spent time working in strip clubs, arts journalist Emily Dinsdale and photographer Bronwen Parker-Rhodes wanted to cast their own lens on the subject. It was by the bar of one club that they first met, instantly bonding over their love of documenting culture. At that time, Parker-Rhodes was working on a documentary film about stripping, but found that the women she’d met were reluctant to appear on camera.
“I soon realised that the only way I could tell these incredible stories would be by transcribing these women’s words and turning them into a book,” she says. They started collecting material for it in 2018.
Wanting You To Want Me: Stories From the Secret World of Strip Clubs is an oral history of the art form, a collection of intimate testimonies about a complicated and intense industry. The strippers go by their stage pseudonyms, and the locations and names of clubs are redacted with thick black lines, but the stories are utterly personal, like a friend engaging you in a DMC over a glass of wine. The accompanying photography taken by Parker-Rhodes, which goes back 20 years, includes private moments such as dressing room make-up application, plus raw snaps of impressive pole stunts and punter interaction.
“We’d both been trying to somehow record or preserve in some tangible way the culture of the London strip clubs we’d spent time in. It felt a bit like a vanishing world and we wanted to grasp hold of it and retain something of it,” Dinsdale says.
All the women featured in the book are those that Parker-Rhodes and Dinsdale have worked with.
“When you’ve spent time with other dancers in that environment, the sense of intimacy is often really accelerated,” Dinsdale continues. “You can move very quickly into realms of conversation that you might never reach in other circumstances. So that’s the jumping off point at which the stories in the book begin – at a point where you’ve already spent so much time naked together and possibly contorted in weird positions, you’re beyond embarrassment… you feel uninhibited and safe from judgement.”
One of their favourite stories, they say, is from someone named Havana, which Dinsdale describes as “like a Harold Pinter play – so darkly funny and profound and poignant”.
“I thought I’d heard it all from her, but when I interviewed her for the book, she actually blew my mind,” adds Parker-Rhodes. “She’s someone who’s gained an incredible insight into the male psyche from her experiences as a stripper.”
In it, Havana succinctly describes the dynamic where a customer comes away from their interaction feeling objectified: “Hang on a minute, I actually would prefer to be appreciated for who I am. Why doesn’t she like me?”
There are also many comic anecdotes: a stripper who pretends to be French for years due to an impromptu decision to fake an accent during her audition. Another describes chatting about bricklaying in detail with a construction worker. Overall, it strays from demonising the clientele, instead presenting them as as varied as a collection of people you might find walking down the street. “For every loner with unkempt fingernails whose interests are disconcertingly gynaecological, there are also customers with integrity, charm and kindness,” the book lays out in a chapter titled The Private Dance. There are wholesome, long-lasting friendships between stripper and customer, as well as whirlwind romances.
The book flips the script on the idea of strip clubs as establishments that cater solely to men’s desires – largely, the women describe it as a magical, life-affirming activity that can be incredibly enjoyable.
“We wanted to resist the really polarised ideas of strippers and what they represent,” Dinsdale says. “There’s a tendency to characterise them in the extremes of either victimhood or emancipation, and always the lived reality is far more complicated”.
“I hope this book illustrates that there isn’t one overarching narrative or experience working as a stripper,” adds Parker-Rhodes. “It’s a messy, complicated world full of conflicting stories, and that’s the beauty of it. Although this book is written entirely by strippers, it’s ultimately about real human connections and relationships. I’m confident it will resonate with everyone.”
Read extracts taken from the book, from Lola, Katie and Chiqui, below.
This job helps you set boundaries because you learn how to say no. If someone’s not paying or if they’re not worth your time then they’re not getting it anymore. And that level of boundaries, of confidence – of sass! – can be quite affirming outside as well.
It’s about taking the expectations people have of women and re-evaluating them – that a woman is expected to be happy, attentive, nurturing. And that’s something that’s imposed on us, but it’s also something we can take advantage of and replicate in the club environment. It’s somewhere where men can purchase it, whereas perhaps outside, women are not going to be patient and smile at them, thinking they’re interesting. So, are we reproducing those values, expectations, clichés, by working in this environment? Or are we actually destroying that by making it a commodity?
I find it so inconceivable now when I see these lingerie shops and think of wives going in there to buy this lingerie to look sexy for their husbands. All the elaborate bras you can’t actually wear under clothes, they’re meant to be worn on their own. You’re just offering yourself up as a gift! In the context of stripping or sex work that’s completely legitimate, because you’re getting paid for it. Before I started stripping, perhaps I didn’t question it so much. But now, something about it would make me feel weird – presenting yourself as a gift in lingerie to a man you’re striving for genuine intimacy with? We’ll leave that kind of performance in the strip club. That’s the kind of empowerment you get out of this job.
People were always really interested when I told them I was a stripper. People are curious about what actually takes place inside strip clubs. Maybe they imagine a really heightened erotic atmosphere, saturated with sex. But, in my experience, sex is demystified in a strip club – you can buy a striptease just the same as you can buy a packet of roasted peanuts or a drink. It’s just another thing for sale.
I often found it quite comical there, like a 1970s sitcom. At Christmas time you would sometimes find yourself performing a striptease to something really inappropriate, like that Band Aid song, Do They Know It’s Christmas? And I’d always laugh to myself because it was so absurd, but I’d look around and it was as if no one else noticed it was funny.
They installed big plasma-screen televisions, but often they’d be showing, like, The Great British Bake Off while girls were performing stripteases on stage and, on daytime shifts, bar staff would sometimes heat their lunch up in a microwave behind the bar and you could smell, like, chicken korma or chilli con carne. There’s something about the smell of hot food – especially hot meat – that’s so incongruous with sex. It’s such a school dinner odour.
The deepest, strongest relationships I ever had have been with my fellow sex worker friends, for sure. There’s no judgement, like who are we to judge? And there’s no editing, you don’t have to lie about who you are, you don’t have to lie about your needs, you don’t have to lie if a customer was rude to you. Because sometimes society is like, Oh, well it’s because you’re a stripper, you put yourself in the situation. A stripper will never tell you that shit. And that’s why you really cherish these friends.
I also think it’s like a witch thing. It’s very coven-like when women get together to play with the energy of sex, money, desire and therapy. Because let’s not forget that we’re healers. We’re healing parts of our body, we’re healing other people, we’re healing female sexuality that has been punished for centuries. We are healing our self-worth because society says you’re too fat, too skinny, you’re ugly, I wouldn’t fuck you… but I’m making money out of this. It gives you this really raw self-esteem. I also think there’s something quite magical and witchy about a bunch of girls getting together and smelling each other’s periods. If one got their period, then suddenly all of us started – our bodies were so close together that we’re smelling each other’s hormones the whole time. I’m pretty sure it’s very common, like it’s probably the core of witchcraft. When women get together like this, we’re creating magic.
Wanting You To Want Me is out now and can be ordered here.